Project Overview

«The Epistemology of Responsibility in Agency-Stultifying Situations» (PID2022-139226NB-I00): 2023–2026

Funded by the Spanish Ministry for Science & Innovation. 

The project, which is based at the Valencia Philosophy Lab of the Philosophy Department, University of Valencia (UV), includes funding for a PhD scholarship (FPI).


Organising team:

Chon Tejedor (UV) and Sergi Rosell (UV) (co-Principal Investigators).

Josep E Corbí (UV) and Jesús Vega Encabo (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid).

Further project members include:

Maria Alvarez (King’s College London)

Saray Ayala-López (California State University, Sacramento)

Carla Bagnoli (Università di Modena e Reggio Emilia)

Chris Bennett (University of Sheffield)

José Medina (Northwestern University)

Cristina Lafont (Northwestern University)

Virginia Ballesteros (UV)

Christian Carbonell Palasí (UV)

Javier Castellote Lillo (UV)

Miguel Gramage (UV)

The aim of this project is to explore the type of individual responsibility that arises in situations characterised by the following four features:
(a) The combined behaviour of numerous individuals causes significant cumulative harm.
(b) The behaviour of any one individual, in and of itself, does not cause this cumulative harm, nor can it have a significant impact on it.
(c) Individuals do not intend the cumulative harm, even though they understand and expect it to result from the combined behaviour of numerous individuals – behaviour such as their own.
(d) Abstaining from behaving in this way is costly for the individual. 

One upshot of this is that situations meeting criteria (a) to (d) cripple our capacity to articulate the epistemic resources by virtue of which we could determine what sort of individual responses – and responsibilities – are appropriate in them. This, in turn, hampers any potential behavioural change at the individual level: since intentions are not obviously problematic – as per (c) – and individual behaviour has no significant impact on the problem – as per (b), we become epistemically unable to access and articulate clear reasons for changing our behaviour. This lack of epistemic resources, together with the fact that behavioural change is costly – as per (d), means that individual behaviour remains unchanged. Situations meeting criteria (a) to (d) thus have a stultifying effect on our agency. To capture this idea, we will refer to any situation meeting these four criteria as an agency-stultifying situation.

Examples of situations meeting these criteria are extraordinarily commonplace. In fact, we would go as far as to suggest that they are one of the most common type of ethical situation we regularly find ourselves in, as individuals. 

The project has two major aims. 
The first is to develop a notion of individual responsibility capable of addressing the challenge of agency-stultifying situations. One possible candidate for this is that of conditioned responsibility. The conditioned responsibility model advances that some individual responsibilities (what one owes others) and some individual dues (what others owe one) arise directly in response to the conditions in which one finds oneself operating, independently of one’s intentions or of the consequences of one’s individual behaviour.

The second is to develop a dedicated non-generalist epistemology specifically designed to address the question of individual conditioned responsibility in agency-stultifying situations. This epistemology will need to navigate a series of challenges stemming from the first-person third-person asymmetry, the possibility of self-deception and the problem of ignorance.